Health Insurance Working Group holds secret meeting

If something isn't broken, you shouldn't try to fix it.

Someone needs to explain this simple concept to our representatives on the Board of Selectmen and the AB Regional School Committee, who have chosen to negotiate changes to the health insurance plans and payments across all union entities in executive session rather than in public. That might be a reasonable procedure, except these same negotiations were done four years ago and everything was done in public. The process worked fine and the results were good, so why the change?

Several years ago, in response to rising healthcare costs, Governor Patrick and the legislature gave cities and towns some unexpected leverage so they could lower costs, and that was to allow them to join the state's lower-cost health insurance pool. Since changes to health plans normally need to be approved through collective bargaining, the legislation allowed the towns to discuss the changes with the unions but if the unions were unwilling to work with the towns, the towns could bypass the unions and implement the changes unilaterally.

So in Acton, the Selectmen used the law to open up a process that would be acceptable to both sides, and the Health Insurance Working Group (HIWG) met publicly and often, and reached a settlement that lowered costs to taxpayers and kept the town's health insurance plans with some minor modifications that saved some money. And while employees had to pay a still-low 25% of the premiums (up from 15%), this was still well below what most have to pay in the private sector.

Under the law, any agreement cannot be opened up for modification for three years. So I've kept my eye on the calendar and about a year ago, I started to ask when the negotiations would be starting up again. When I found out that the HIWG was going to be meeting, I planned to attend, only to learn that it was going to be held in secret, called Executive Session.

I attended the open portion of the meeting, held today in Town Hall, and there appeared to be three or four administrators and perhaps ten or so union representatives, but no elected officials. In other words, unlike the last process that had elected officials to represent Acton (and Boxborough) taxpayers, this round of negotiations will be held in private with no public input. Last time, members of both the Board of Selectmen and School Committee were active participants and members of the HIWG.

Noting the change in process, and knowing that I would be asked to leave the meeting once it went into Executive Session, I asked whether this new process best served the public and taxpayers, whether it was legal, and why would we change an open, transparent process (presumably legal four years ago) with something that shuts out members of the public and allows secret deals with no public pressure to keep costs down?

Now, keep in mind that in these negotiations, unlike the typical union negotiations which favor public-sector unions under state law, management clearly has the upper hand. The state law which allowed cities and towns to move health insurance plans to the state's GIC health insurance is something that the local unions do not want, so they are willing to pick up higher premium costs, as well as share some of the savings if savings are to be had, in order to keep our existing health insurance. Acton self-insures through it's Health Insurance Trust.

Don't quote me, but four years ago, the savings from changes to the plans and higher premiums paid by employees were calculated at something like $1 million per year, of which about $500,000 or $700,000 flowed back to the town, with the rest going back to the union members in lower overall costs.

But now nobody outside the room is going to know what is happening until the negotiations are done, and that lack of transparency is probably going to raise costs for taxpayers. Can we expect these administrators to fairly represent taxpayers when it is likely they are also going to be negatively affected by the outcome of these negotiations themselves? Isn't that called "a conflict of interest?"

I expressed my concerns in a letter to members of the Board of Selectmen and Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee last week. No response.

I also asked Town Manager Steve Ledoux if the change was legal and if the meetings could be held in executive session, and he obtained a legal opinion from the town's labor counsel which said that the meetings could be held in executive session. Of course, the opinion did not address if they should be held that way, or why there was a change in process.

Our elected officials are not doing taxpayers a favor by approving secret meetings for the Health Insurance Working Group.

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